“To reduce COVID-19 illness and death, readiness planning must embrace the large-scale implementation of high-quality, non-pharmaceutical public health measures…such as case detection and isolation, contact tracing and monitoring/quarantining.”
– Joint China — World Health Organization Mission on COVID-19

Across the globe, the COVID-19 virus has taken millions of lives, pushed hospitals to the brink, and disrupted the very fabric of our society. As outbreaks continue to emerge and spread despite our collective efforts, there is no doubt that we are in this for the long haul. The variants are quicker, stronger, and more difficult to contain. According to World Health Organization (WHO), the key to preventing and controlling COVID-19 lies in its detection.

WHO has called on governments to “prioritize active, exhaustive case finding and immediate testing and isolation, painstaking contact tracing and rigorous quarantine of close contacts.” Testing more people and tracking them to make sure they do not spread the disease further is a critical part of any plan to suppress new waves of infections.

Photo credit — Left: Levi Meir Clancy / Right: Irwan Iwe

Testing labs are thus an important resource for countries in the fight against COVID-19, giving them the ability to quickly screen and detect cases, block the spread, and control the pandemic. Testing, tracing, and tracking have been applied effectively in past outbreaks, such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003, the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) in 2012, and Ebola in 2014.

But testing sites that are safe, accessible, mobile, and easy to transport cost money and time — rare commodities in the face of a mass pandemic.

Enter the Huo-Yan mobile testing lab.

Photo credit: Mat Napo

Created in Wuhan during the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak, it offers the complete package — equipment, training, platforms, and systems for large-scale screening, diagnoses, and detection of mutations.

The Huo-Yan (fire-eye) lab is aptly named in honour of the Chinese mythological character Monkey King, whose fire eyes instantly and accurately identify threats (in this case undetected viral infections).

Co-designed by Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI), Etopia and Tongji University, the mobile lab has an inflatable membrane structure. It is easy to transport to pandemic hot spots, quick to set up and easily stored. It uses the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test (nasal swab) — the gold standard for COVID-19 testing because of its speed and accuracy. It includes robots to automate the preparation of samples as well as powerful genetic sequencers to help track new strains of the virus as it mutates.

Photo credit: Huo Yan

According to BGI, 58 Huo-Yan labs have been built in 18 countries from Australia to Saudi Arabia over the past six months. A lab in Belgrade (Serbia), was set up in under 12 days, to help the country increase their testing capacity, detect and control suspected cases, release recovered patients and screen close contacts and high-risk groups. Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić said the lab was not only a significant aid for Serbia in the fight against COVID-19, but also an important basis for further strengthening the Serbian health system, protecting it from other pandemics well into the future.

Australia has also benefited from the Huo-Yan lab, expanding its testing capacity by an additional 54,000 tests per day — a three-fold increase — in response to an urgent need to quickly process and test samples from all states. The innovative solution enabled the Australian government to isolate the virus instead of the entire population and to get the country back to work.

Australia’s Health Minister Greg Hunt said, “As we move to the next stage of our recovery, further expanding testing capacity and case ascertainment is one of the three critical steps we can take to protect Australians, avoid further spikes in community transmission and assist in easing restrictions.”

Photo credit: Huo Yan

In the post-COVID-19 era, Huo-Yan labs will be repurposed to help with large-scale screening and diagnoses for other public health crises, such as infectious diseases or biological threats.

In the meantime, increasing testing capacity is critical in the fight against COVID-19. Yin Ye, CEO of BGI, says the priority is to bring this pandemic under control, “we are working with governments and institutions globally to achieve this mission.”

This project aims to address the following UN Sustainable Development Goals: 3. Ensure health and well-being; 4. Ensure quality education; 8. Promote decent work and economic growth

WDO’s World Design Impact Prize™ was established in 2011 to honour and elevate industrial design driven projects that benefit society. The award aims to bring visibility and recognition to socially responsible design initiatives around the world.

View the other World Design Impact Prize 2021 shortlisted projects.